Map of WNC's state House districts under the district plan that federal courts have now rejected.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series by Carolina Public Press looking at population and voting registration shifts in the state’s western region and their impact on politics and policy. Part 2 focuses on redistricting challenges, the rural/urban divide and the rise of millennial voters in WNC.

Expect Western North Carolina to have less representation in Raleigh and Washington after the redistricting that will follow the 2020 census.

Some parts of the region are growing, but not fast enough to keep up with rapid growth elsewhere, so that WNC’s population as a percentage of the state total is falling.

Analysis of the latest data on population and voting trends suggests shifting demographics in the state’s western region and rapid growth elsewhere will combine to reshape the political boundaries that determine representation.

The change includes a generational shift in the region’s voting registration that has evened out party identification as more members of the millennial  generation sign up to vote.

Gathering data

Late last year, the U.S. Census released the latest update to the American Community Survey, its five-year deep dive into housing, income, education and poverty. The information has provided researchers with an even clearer picture of where and how we live.

Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography, a UNC research center in Chapel Hill, said the survey, which uses detailed information from interviews as well as other statistics, provides the kind of information that has a real impact on the ground, giving planners a better handle on trends, from where people are moving or leaving to details on how they live.

Tippett said one example from WNC of how local governments and other agencies can use the data is in the change in households as a population ages.

“In western North Carolina, you see a lot of seniors living alone,” she said. “They are aging in place and while that’s a good thing, there are added vulnerabilities and risk,” she said. Knowing that’s a growing trend, she said, can help counties get ahead of the added services needed for that population.

“For the first time we are seeing small communities in greater, richer detail,” Tippett said.

One big change in the data, which covers 2010 through 2013, is that the Census Bureau changed the cycle so that it doesn’t overlap with the prior five-year survey. That, she said, gives researchers two distinct five-year sets of data and the ability to compare what was going on in 2005 through 2009 to the new cycle. Those cycles are important, Tippett said, because they cover the pre-recession and recovery timeframes.

On the ground in WNC

An aging population throughout most of WNC is one driver of change, but an even bigger factor affecting the region is the flow of people in and out of its counties.

Migration patterns, Tippett said, are having a huge effect in reshaping the western region.

With deaths outpacing births in many counties, she said, nearly all the overall increase in population here is attributable to people moving into the region. In effect, whether a county is growing, how and how fast, is determined by who is moving there.

Tippett said Cherokee, Clay and Macon counties lost population since 2010 despite having more people move in than move out. Henderson, Haywood and Madison counties, which also saw deaths outnumber births, had enough in-migration to show a population increase. Graham and Rutherford counties, both hard hit in the recession, dropped because they both saw sizable numbers of people leaving.

“Net migration is by far the dominant force in WNC,” Tippett said.

Even Buncombe County’s estimated 5.1 percent population rise, roughly 12,000 people, was overwhelmingly migration driven. “In Buncombe, 92 percent of the increase was from migration,” Tippett said. “In Henderson, it accounted for all of the population growth.”

Statewide over the same period, 59 percent of the population increase came from new residents.

Like the rest of the state, much of the migration in WNC is in major cities and college communities. In WNC, however there is an additional layer of growth from retirees, a trend that wasn’t nearly as evident 15 years ago, Tippett said. Like some coastal counties, there are areas in the mountain region where the population is increasing and getting older at the same time.

Henderson County is a good example of that, Tippett said, because its growth is driven by retirees and younger families drawn to the nearby Asheville job market.

New voters bring change

North Carolina grew by an estimated 408,000 people from 2010 to 2014 raising the total to 9,943,964. Estimates have since jumped further and the population estimates topped 10 million since 2010.

Voter registration, however, is not an estimate. There were 6,223,318 registered voters in 2010 general election. The total as of January 2016 is 6,440,501. In addition to the rapid pace, growth is spread unevenly across North Carolina.

In isolation, growth patterns in WNC might not presage big changes in the region’s political dynamics. But growth in the west is dwarfed by that along the state’s I-85/I-40 corridor that includes Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle. Wake County for instance, grew by 10.8 percent from 2010 to 2014, more than twice the rate of Buncombe County, WNC fastest growing county. Scale is important, too. During that time Wake added nearly 97,000 residents, nine times that of Buncombe’s jump of 12,000 more residents.

The consequences of those uneven changes are already having some impact on state politics playing out in the legislature through  increasingly contentious rural/urban debates. But five years years from now, the demographic changes will have a major impact when the General Assembly convenes to redraw new district lines.

Tippett and others see almost no way for the region to not lose at least one state House district and, depending on how lines are drawn, maybe more. There are only two ways there cannot be a decline in the WNC delegation, she said.

“The first is if we are totally wrong about population trends and Wake and Mecklenburg somehow reverse their growth. The second is if they increase the number of districts, Tippett said. “Both are unrealistic.”

The trends being seen now, she said, are more likely to increase rather than reverse.

A recent district by district population estimate published by Carolina Demography compared the 2014 totals of current districts with what would be the ideal population ranges in a hypothetical redistricting.

The results showed that maps adopted by the General Assembly in 2011 are already greatly out of balance. Many exceed compliance standards in federal law for population variations between districts. The study found that all 13 of the state’s congressional districts, 50 out of 120 state House districts and 17 out of 50 state Senate districts are out of compliance as of 2014. A district is considered out of compliance if it deviates from the ideal population by 0.5 percent or more for congressional districts and 5 percent or more for state House and Senate districts.

In WNC, the population shifts are evident in the changes in the  districts. The study found that all but one of the region’s five state Senate districts have populations lower than the ideal population for a district.

Sen. Ralph Hise’s District 47 saw the biggest drop since it was drawn, at 6.5 percent below the ideal size. Sen. Dan Soucek’s District 45 down 4.6 percent from ideal saw the second biggest drop. The Asheville-based District 49, represented by Sen. Terry Van Duyn, hold the sole positive gain with a population now 1.7 percent higher than the ideal.

The region’s 11 state House districts mirror the state Senate trends. Only Buncombe Reps. Susan Fisher and John Ager saw their districts grow enough to put them above the ideal district size. The rest of the WNC House delegation saw their districts slide relative to the rest of the state with districts currently represented by Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, Joe Sam Queen, D-Haywood, and Michele Presnell, R-Yancey, all down 7 percent or more from the ideal population.

At the federal level the 11th Congressional District, represented by Mark Meadows, and the 10th Congressional District, represented by Patrick McHenry are both 2.6 percent below ideal population.

Tippett said given the trends, the next redistricting will be a lot different from the last one.

“We’re going to see some pretty substantial changes to the map,” she said. “That means consolidation in some places and expansion in others.”

Population changes for WNC districts

(Based on analysis from Carolina Demographics)

District/ Incumbent/ Variation from Ideal Size

  • House 85 Josh Dobson (R) -5.8%
  • House 93 Jonathan Jordan (R) -3.8%
  • House 112 Mike Hager (R) -7.0%
  • House 113 Chris Whitmire (R) -1.2%
  • House 114 Susan Fisher (D) +3.8%
  • House 115 John Ager (D) +1.0%
  • House 116 Brian Turner (D) -2.5%
  • House 117 Chuck McGrady (R) -.02%
  • House 118 Michele Presnell (R) -7.3%
  • House 119 Joe Sam Queen (D) -7.5%
  • House 120 Roger West (R) -3.2%
  • Senate 45 Dan Soucek (R) – 4.6%
  • Senate 47 Ralph Hise (R) – 6.5%
  • Senate 48 Tom Apodaca (R) – 3.2%
  • Senate 49 Terry Van Duyn (D) +1/7
  • Senate 50 Jim Davis (R) – 2.0
  • U.S. Cong. 10th Patrick McHenry (R) – 2.6
  • U.S. Cong. 11th Mark Meadows (R) -2.6

Ideal Size Based on 2014 Population
U.S. House Districts (13) = 764,920
NC Senate (50) = 198,879
NC House  (120) = 82,866


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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. To contact the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email

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  1. Further evidence that gifts of support to Carolina Public Press are well invested. Excellent, balanced reporting.